Politics of Poverty

USAID reforms the Trump team should double-down on

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Children in Tanzania use a light powered by Off-Grid: Electric’s solar service, mPower. The service is provided through a partnership with a new USAID mechanism, Development Innovation Ventures, which is designed to encourage the creation of new development solutions. (Photo: Matthieu Young / USAID)

Expanding these efforts would be the mark of a true reformer.

Throughout the campaign, President Trump emphasized his desire to be a reformer of the status quo in Washington. And there’s almost no doubt his administration will be looking at US foreign assistance with an eye for change. What the President may not know is that USAID has seen a lot of reforms in recent years that go against popular myths about foreign aid, and put the agency on a path to greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Not to mention, it’s doing a lot of good.

With less than one percent of the budget, US foreign assistance is helping to ensure girls are able to go to school, families have access to quality medical care, small businesses have what they need to get started and scale up, and millions who rely on agriculture are able to produce enough crops to nutritiously feed and support their families. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of room for improvement.

If the Trump administration wants to strengthen the US position abroad and truly make US foreign aid great it should expand upon – not abandon – the progress made at USAID by:

1. Expanding transparency & accountability of US aid programs.

One of the most important ways we can ensure our foreign assistance is effective is by making sure the public – both in the US and in developing countries – know where our aid dollars are going and what they are accomplishing. Over the last several years, USAID – and the US government as a whole – has made important strides in aid data transparency. It launched ForeignAssistance.gov, a new portal that allows you to explore foreign assistance budgets, projects, and more — and Congress passed the strongly bipartisan Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act. USAID and other agencies are increasingly compliant with international standards, but they’ve got a lot of room for improvement. More and more data on US foreign assistance programs is available each year, but for most of the intended users – citizens, advocates, and officials in developing countries – it’s not yet provided in a useable form. The Trump administration should build upon ongoing US government efforts to change this, while continuing to boost the quantity and quality of aid data available to US and developing country citizens alike.

2. Supporting partner countries to become self-sufficient.

We know that aid has the greatest impact when it aligns with local needs and priorities, and heavily involves local stakeholders. Through USAID’s Local Solutions initiative, US assistance programs are being increasingly delivered through local organizations — which in turn, is empowering those organizations to take on activities once US funding ends and build self-sufficiency in their communities and countries for the long-term. And while there are good examples of US assistance putting country ownership principles into practice, they still are in the minority. If the Trump administration is interested in helping countries to ‘graduate’ from US assistance, it must put policies in place that push USAID to expand practices like using local systems to deliver assistance, aligning US aid programs with country priorities (not just US priorities), and adopting metrics that allow USAID and other agencies to measure the quality and impact of locally-driven development efforts.

3. Prioritizing innovation and new ways of doing business.

While still hugely relevant for the poorest countries, foreign assistance is becoming a smaller and smaller portion of the pie in many developing countries, as domestic revenue and private investment increase. Understanding this, USAID has taken steps to find ways to capitalize on the presence and innovation of the private sector and other non-traditional actors in the fight against poverty. The agency’s creation of the US Global Development Lab and initiatives like Power Africa are perfect examples. The US Global Development Lab serves as USAID’s Silicon Valley-esque idea hub — which tests out smart development approaches in search of the next big idea in the fight against poverty. Power Africa has created a model for how to engage the private sector meaningfully in development, resulting so far in the mobilization of $54 billion from the private sector and other donors out of an initial $7 billion USAID investment. This is just the beginning. The private sector will play a big role in the growth of developing countries, there’s not doubt about that, but much more needs to be done to ensure that the private investments are producing concrete results in the fight against poverty. This seems like an almost natural priority for the Trump administration, and a potentially transformational one for the world’s poor, as long as it puts people’s well-being at the center as it marries business acumen and development expertise.

4. Rigorously evaluating programs to invest in what works.

The return of in-house policy and planning operations to USAID brought along with it much greater capacity for the agency to do high-quality evaluations on its programs to ensure programs are achieving their goals and US taxpayer dollars are being well spent. New evaluation policies and tools at USAID have expanded the monitoring and evaluation skills of its staff, paving the way for more evidence-based program management, strategic planning, and a growing body of knowledge on what works for future programs to build upon. Stepping away from this progress, would mean severely hampering USAID’s ability to ensure that US foreign assistance is achieving meaningful and lasting results for the United States, and for the world’s poorest.


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